I wonder if Moses ever thought: “I should’ve just walked right by that bush and acted like it was a mirage.” When Moses was a mere shepherd watching his father’s-in-law sheep, he had no idea what obeying God’s command to go set his people free from Pharaoh would entail. He thought the hard part was going to be convincing Pharaoh to let the people go. He had no idea that that was going to be the easy part. Forming a new community is not for the faint of heart. And Moses found that out wondering through the wilderness for 40 years with a group of people who would rather complain and gripe then pray and sing. Community is hard. After God’s new community is formed in Exodus, the next three books of the Bible are about this new community trying to figure out how to be a community.
Paul knew community was hard too. In seminary we used to joke that’s why he planted churches then left. But Paul really never left his churches. He kept an eye on those churches and he wrote letters. In fact, he wrote 8 letters that we know of to help these new communities figure out how to be a community together. I have a feeling there are a whole lot more letters we don’t know about. Paul wasn’t exactly the type to keep his thoughts to himself, and he planted far more churches than those in these six cities we do know he wrote to.
And there’s a reason why community is so hard for both Moses and Paul and everyone else in the Bible. And no, it not the other human beings they have to put up with—although that’s part of it. There’s another character that appears in all three of our readings today, and this character is God. And this God has some pretty crazy ideas of how community should be put together and what that community should do in the world.
Moses should have known he was in trouble when he asked God: “What is your name?” And God’s coy response is: “I am what I am.” In case you didn’t catch it when Exodus was read: God didn’t really give an answer. Biblical translations can capitalize these letters all they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that the reason the God of the Bible is unnameable is because God never gave Moses a name! What God gave Moses was a verb: am or is or will be—we’re not sure. That’s the answer Moses gets, and as the story of Exodus continues we’ll find out why: the only way to know this particular God is by what this God does. God is telling Moses that both he and the people she’s sending Moses to will know who God is by what she’s going to do. This is the God who hears slaves crying out. This is the God who goes down to see what the hubbub is about. This is the God who has seen their misery and shared their sufferings, and she’s done with what Pharaoh and his empire are doing to this particular set of people. The time to act has come, and Moses is eventually persuaded to come along.
In Romans we find out exactly what kind of community God wants her people to be. And it’s a tall order. There are reasons for this. The empire is still around. Although this time we’re dealing with Caesar and his empire instead of Pharaoh. But empires do what empires do: a few people at the top have most of the toys, and there are entire systems of oppression in place to make sure that stays the same. The small churches in Rome know the power of empire: they live in the heart of it. A decade before Paul writes to the churches in Rome the current Caesar, Claudius, expelled the Jews from the city. In Acts we find out that Priscilla and Aquila are two of those Jews, who had already accepted Jesus as the Messiah, when they met Paul. While the Jews were expelled from Rome that meant the only Christians in Rome were Gentiles. Claudius died a few years before the letter to the Romans, and the new Caesar, Nero, had let Claudius’ edict lapse. The Jews were returning to Rome, including the Jewish Christians.
When the Jewish Christians left, they had been the ones in charge, and were probably just bringing Gentile converts into the fold. By now the Gentile Christians had been on their own for a few years. Needless to say, there was some friction as these two groups had to work out how to be God’s community in Rome. With the question at the top of the list being: Who’s really in charge here? Over the last several weeks our readings in Romans have been laying down the theology that is the foundation to answer this question. That’s right: Paul wrote ELEVEN chapters of theology to answer this one question. And over the next few weeks we’re going to see how Paul answers that question. Paul’s answer started last week when we heard the first part of Romans 12. This entire chapter is about the kind of community the churches should be striving for. Why? Because the kind of community we want is going to determine the kind of leadership we need. And Paul’s vision of the Beloved Community of God doesn’t look anything like Caesar’s idea of what community or empire should look like.
I made the note earlier that in Exodus God’s name is a verb because we will come to know this God as she acts in the world. So it shouldn’t surprise you that Paul thinks the community of Christ will show the world who we are through what we do. We are called to be Christ to our world. Which is why our passage from Romans today is filled with verbs and commands. Or I should say command. The one command in these verses is: Let love be genuine. The rest of the passage shows us what that looks like in real life.
This is one of the reasons Paul is my favorite old curmudgeon in the Bible. He dealt with life as it was for both him and the churches he was writing to. He knew what was happening on the ground, and as we all know, he didn’t mince words. Paul knew about the tensions between the Gentile and Jewish Christians. He knew about their struggles to have a united community, and all of the arguments and skirmishes going on about who was really in charge. He knew the dangers of living in the heart of the empire. So he tells them this what genuine love looks like: love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. He sets the two groups up to serve each other to show the other that they are doing this love thing right. And he continues it for the rest of the letter. So keep an eye out for that in the coming weeks. But he doesn’t stop with how the church should be treating its own members, but also how the church should be living in the larger community around them.
This is where most of us tune out. Do we really want to bless those who persecute us? Do we really want to feed them or give them something to drink? I sure wasn’t blessing the people who set my building on fire at the end of May. And this is where the rubber meets the road as Peter discovered in our Gospel reading today.
After being praised by Jesus last week, I’m sure the last thing Peter expected was for Jesus to turn around the next minute and call him Satan, but that’s what happens. Jesus is going to Jerusalem to confront both the religious empire of the Jewish leaders and the political empire of Rome. He knows what happens when prophets take on empires. It normally doesn’t end well for the prophet. Peter doesn’t want to hear this. Peter has glorious dreams of conquest and ruling. But the kingdom that Jesus has come to set up looks vastly different from Pharaoh, Caesar, and their empires.
Jesus tells the disciples and all of us who follow after them what the cost of building this kingdom in a world of empires will look like: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26).
Church, we do not have an easy call, even in the best of times. And we are not living in the best of times. All of us know what it’s like to live in the heart of an empire. All of us know the insidious ways this empire slithers into our lives and tries to make us take the easy way, just as Peter wanted Jesus do. “You don’t have to love everyone.” “You don’t have to forgive her.” “Why pray for him when he’s so mean to you?”
Then there are the not so insidious ways of empire which are on full display right now: our own Pharaoh who thinks that just because he says something, then it has to be true. Racism is on full display across our cities and states. Unarmed civilians are murdered by agents of the state and vigilantes. And of course the oligarchs who sit at the top of the heap are hoarding more of the money and resources now then they ever did in a time of pandemic, horrific job losses, and an economic downturn for huge sectors of the businesses that keep our economy going.
And we as the church are called to do the hardest thing there is to do: to show there is a different way to live. To show that the ways of the empire are not how God ordered this world. Paul’s words to the Romans are some of his most inspired writing. They cast a vision of the community and world God wants to bring into existence, and they are the hardest thing we will ever do, but fear not: we’re not alone. We’re in this together, and God is with us. So listen up Grace!
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:9-21).